Analysis: Students’ spendings and savings: How to maximise government grants, tax credits, and bursaries that are available to you

In the lead up to Budget 2024, clarity and exactitude are needed on what is available to students in a time of widespread economic hardship

The recent Budget 2024 saw many reforms in the world of student finances, ranging from an increase in the SUSI Grant maintenance rates to an expansion in the Rent Tax Credit parameters.

The public generally welcomes Fine Gael’s staple “cash-back-in-pockets” fiscal policies, however as we near a looming General Election, the government perhaps runs the risk of oversaturating this stance. Perhaps people are growing tired of these actions, or perhaps there is so much attempted economic intervention from the government (whether or not this is actually successful is another story) that the public is no longer aware of what is available to them. 

Below is an extensive profile and explanation of the most used fiscal supports designed for third-level students from the State, ranging from staples in Irish university life to vaguely obscure bursaries, aiming to aid you in your spendings and savings during this term, and a time of renewed economic hardship.

The SUSI Grant. 

The Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) Grant needs no introduction – it is by far the most sweeping of government grants, awarding funding to over 60,000 students state-wide in the last academic year alone. Students may obtain grants for both self-maintenance and fee payments, and further there is no set criteria for the awarded money to be spent on, although it is accepted and understood that it is to aid students through their time at third level. This all does come, however, with an air of complexity that many students find daunting, if not perplexing. In fact, SUSI is consistently under-applied to, as seen in the €500 fee reduction only enjoying a 25% application rate. Nonetheless, the application process for a SUSI grant is easily broken down. Firstly, the golden figure in terms of the SUSI grant is one’s household income – this is an amalgam of both your’s and your parent(s) or guardian(s) annual income. Necessary deductions may be made for extra hours a student has worked outside of term time, however nonetheless the student’s income is accounted for when assessing eligibility. One must next assess their home’s proximity to their college, for there exists two separate rates on the basis of living outside or within 30 kilometres away from your institution. In short, Varying levels of fiscal support are divvied out on the basis of income brackets, the number of dependent children in the household, and physical distance to college. The SUSI website hosts a welcomed and interactive “eligibility indicator”, which gives an accurate description of what may or may not be available to you. 

The Rent Tax Credit. 

The Rent Tax Credit, introduced into Irish law through last year’s Budget 2023, aims to provide relief to, in part, students and their families who rent accommodation during university term time. The maximum figure that an individual, or someone on behalf of an individual, may now claim is €750, benefitting from a recent increase of €250 in Budget 2024.This figure can be claimed by a student, or parent(s) who pay rent on behalf of their child attending third level education, however this measure excludes matures students. Furthermore, this applies for all students living in official student accommodation, as well as those living in digs – the ladder aspect being a recent reform from Budget 2024. It should be noted, however, that it is only necessary to live in the rented accommodation during term time, not the full calendar year, in the case for students. The deductible amount will be taken from the necessary income tax to be paid, however anyone claiming a housing benefit of any nature is not entitled to this provision. Rent, as defined by the Revenue Commission, does not include utilities, board, or any extra services that may be associated with living in renting accommodation – only the price of the accommodation itself is able to be taken into account. Moreover, any given applicant may not be related in any manner to the landlord from which they rent, and the accommodation must be in the Republic of Ireland. This tax deduction may be easily applied for online, through accessing Revenue’s MyAccount section.

The Student Assistance Fund. 

The Student Assistance Fund (SAF) is a support scheme managed by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on behalf of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. It is available to “full or part-time students who are experiencing financial difficulty while attending higher education”, with eligibility ranging from students in level 6 courses (a two year course resulting in an Advanced or Higher Certificate, one step lower than a PLC) to level 10 (a PhD) on the National Framework of Qualifications. Specifically targeted groups who may avail of this support fund include Irish Travellers and Roma, people with physical, learning, or mental disabilities, and “socioeconomic disadvantaged” applicants. According to the 2022 National Access Plan, this last group includes, but is not limited to: people on a low income or social welfare, from a disadvantaged area, with experience in the criminal justice system or the care system, refugees, and people from ethnic minority groups. Funding may be sought for books, class supplies, rent, bills, food, essential travel, and more, however it may not cover tuition or registration fees, nor student loan repayments. The Senior Tutor’s office says applications are “opening shortly” but that they “are taking urgent requests on an individual basis”. They further stress the necessity to “upload all your supporting documents” to ease the application as much as is possible. The decision of whether or not funds will be supplied to an applicant from the SAF, and the issue of how much money, is up to the discretion of the individual college board dealing with such cases. The SAF was awarded €17 million this year from Budget 2024, and as a rare example of a decentralised state support (i.e. the funds come from, but are not distributed by the State), there is indeed less bureaucracy than is often expected for such endeavours. 

The 1916 Bursary.

The 1916 Bursary was established by former Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton in 2017, with the aim of “encouraging participation and success by students from sections of society that are significantly underrepresented in higher education”. Indeed, the target groups of the 1916 Bursary are nearly identical to those of the Student Assistance Fund, therefore there is no doubt that a large overlap of potential applicants exists between these two supports. The similarities do not end here, however, as students should enquire with their educational institution directly for application to the 1916 Bursary, in the same fashion as the SAF. To draw distinctions, the 1916 Bursary is intended purely for incoming first year students with household incomes of less than €24,500. There exists three bands, the first being the most generous of a €5,000 bursary per annum, and the second being €2,000. The final band’s funds stem from the remaining amount after the first and second tiers have been completed. The sorting of applications into the various tiers is done on a needs basis. College’s Senior Tutor Services is yet to update their web page regarding precise details of this 2023/24 academic year, however last year applications opened in mid-September and closed in late October. The Senior Tutor’s office said in a statement that they “are awaiting official word” and quoted the 1916 Bursary’s website asking students to “please check this website later for more details”. 

There exists, still, more financial assistance available to third level students, and these may take the form of individual bursaries or scholarships, dependent on academic or sporting performance. The above list, however, aims to provide the necessary information for the broadest sectors of the population. It cannot be understated, the importance of informing students not just the existence of the above schemes, but also their limitations and eligibility. As a public service that aims to build the country from the ground up, and diminish the barriers to education that so forcibly exist, it remains an anomaly that we seem to only learn of their existence after a government minister has complained of the lack of awareness surrounding them. Although, against a backdrop of complaints regarding too-restrictive eligibility from the electorate and proposed reforms by the opposition parties, perhaps the marketing of these schemes is the least of their concerns.